AS/COA – Venezuelan Opposition to Back One Candidate against Chávez

There may be a year to go before Venezuelans head to the ballot box for the next presidential vote,  but the election is already kicking into high gear. On Monday, opposition leaders in the Coalition for Democratic Unity (MUD) signed a deal agreeing to back one candidate to face current President Hugo Chávez on October 7, 2012.  “We the signatories of this agreement unanimously support the candidate who is elected in a February 12 primary as the single candidate of the Democratic Unity coalition,” reads the pact. The deal was signed within days of Leopoldo López—banned in 2008 from competing for Caracas’ mayoralty seat—announcing his presidential bid. Should the Supreme Court allow him to run, López would compete against a number of candidates for the primary seat, including polling favorite and Miranda state Governor Henrique Capriles. The primary winner is slated to compete against the cancer-stricken Chávez, whose approval ratings hover around 50 percent, as he seeks a third six-year term.

The Venezuelan race gained steam September 16 when the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) ordered Venezuela to “reestablish the political rights of Mr. Leopoldo López Mendoza” in the case López brought against his country with the OAS court. The popular, ex-mayor of Caracas’ Chacao district is one of some 800 Venezuelans—80 percent from opposition parties—banned from holding public office by the Chávez government since 2007. Known as inhabilitados, they were charged with corruption, though many, including López, were never convicted. After the IACHR’s decision, Chávez dismissed the court as “worthless” and his government said only Venezuela’s Supreme Tribunal of Justice has the right to make the final decision on whether López can hold office before 2014. Still, Time’s Tim Padgett points out: “[I]f Chávez rejects the Inter-American Court ruling and keeps López inhabilitadohe risks handing opposition voters an injustice to rally around.”

Given Monday’s unity pact, the opposition might avoid the fragmentation that kept it from selecting a serious challenger to Chávez in past elections. Capriles could be that opponent, according to an August Datanálisis poll that puts him ahead of other contenders. The Miranda governor stresses social programs but not the anti-capitalist sentiment of the Chávez administration, instead looking to former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva for a model. “Brazil is an example to the region of how you can achieve economic growth with social vision,” he recently told Reuters. Other candidates include Governor of oil-rich Zulia state Pablo Pérez, legislator Maria Corina Machado, and Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma. With the exception of 55-year-old Ledezma, the major candidates are relatively young. “You’re looking at an opposition that’s more unified in terms of its generation, vision, and history,”  AS/COA’s Christopher Sabatini told World Politics Review’s Trend Lines. He pointed out that Venezuelan voters are divided into three groups: those who support Chávez, those against him, and those who fall between. “The question will be who’s going to best be able to capture that middle 30, and it’s going to be a popularity contest.”

Another crucial and uncertain factor in the race is Chávez’s health. The president says he is recovering from cancer after just returning from Cuba for a fourth round of chemotherapy and contends the opposition is seeking to take political advantage of his illness. Meanwhile, rumors continue to swirl about the gravity of his illness; Cuban doctors removed a tumor from his “pelvic area” in June, but the specific type of cancer remains unconfirmed. Chávez opted not to address the UN General Assembly during last week’s opening debate and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad postponed his planned visit to Venezuela due to Chávez’s convalescence. Univision reports that the Venezuelan government began polls to establish president’s potential succeeding candidate, including Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro, Vice President Elias Jaua, and Chávez’s brother and Governor of Barinas state Adán.

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